An Open Government Antidote to COVID-19
Inclusion should be at the heart of any open response and recovery from this pandemic
The spread of Covid-19 has closed much of the world, and the strain on healthcare and other essential workers is unprecedented.
For the most vulnerable, lockdowns impose extreme hardships. It will take the collective action of citizens, civil society and governments to respond and recover from this pandemic. But in order to be fair and effective, that response and recovery must be open and inclusive.
An open response
Covid-19 has sharply highlighted the challenges and value of openness is public procurement. To secure vital stocks of personal protective equipment and intensive care equipment, authorities have had to resort to expedited purchasing procedures. They are faced with global supply constraints, sharply rising prices, and fierce buyer competition. Preventing price gouging, corruption and fraud is critical to saving lives.
That’s why even in emergency circumstances when the need for speed is paramount, transparent and accountable procurement remains critical. Open data on all contracts, released as quickly as possible underpins the coordination of purchases; identification of credible suppliers, and the independent monitoring that is needed to prevent and detect problems.
Journalists and open government advocates from all over the world are quickly mobilizing to use available data to monitor the Covid-19 response and increase contract transparency. A new guide by OGP and the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) brings together the key resources available to achieve that.
In the immediate response, governments must ensure that data and information on health contracts is quickly available to all stakeholders. As we move out of the crisis, opening up public procurement will remain essential to strengthening public health systems and to confronting the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19.
An open recovery
The longer-term response to Covid-19 raises many challenges for open government reformers. Monitoring by leading civil society organizations shows that around the world, the crisis has brought on restrictions to access to information rights; civic and press freedoms; and the growing use of digital tracking tools – many of which are untested. At the same time, governments are announcing unprecedented financial support packages to lessen the economic effects of Covid-19.
In the recovery, rights that were suspended in the context of the public health emergency must be reinstated. The design and governance of digital solutions must center on human rights. Economic relief must be fair, prioritize support to the least economically secure people and advance sustainable development.
According to the WHO, even during “normal” times, more than half of the world’s people do not receive all of the essential health services they need.
To engage citizens in the protection of their rights, governments, parliaments, civil society organizations and businesses should commit to open and effective recovery actions, including through OGP action plans. Longstanding priorities of the open government community will play a crucial role in these: From (re)building access to information to strengthening public participation, open and accountable public finance across tax, budgets and contracts; and the protection of whistleblowers, journalists and activists.
Focus on inclusion
We also need to make sure that the recovery from Covid-19 responds to the challenges faced by the most disadvantaged and marginalized members of society. If we don’t do this, they will be more at risk of being excluded socially, politically, and economically. By removing barriers to their participation, we can make our response a rights-based one.
Women and girls, LGBTIQ+ people, those facing age discrimination, informal workers, migrants, ethnic minorities and indigenous communities are among the groups most vulnerable to human rights violations, economic shocks, and they have the worst access to vital public services.
Public health is a case in point. Many public health systems are structurally underfinanced. Corruption and fraud exacerbate resource constraints. According to the WHO, even during “normal” times, more than half of the world’s people do not receive all of the essential health services they need.
Additional challenges arise in areas such as sexual and reproductive health, where stigma, discrimination and unequal gender norms contribute to dramatically inadequate access to essential services. Disruption of services and delay in supplies such as contraceptives due to Covid-19 may lead to increased rates of unwanted pregnancies, rising maternal and infant mortality. Already, closures of thousands of vital service facilities in more than 60 countries have been reported.
The recovery from Covid-19 needs to include the people that have been historically under-represented
A closely related example is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the current crisis, supply chain disruptions and lockdowns complicate ongoing access to vital treatment for people living with HIV, and preventative testing and outreach. Already before, rising infections, financial pressures, persistent stigma and discrimination were important concerns demanding a greater focus on transparency, participation and accountability.
In this area, Ukrainian HIV activists supported and used public procurement reforms – resulting in stronger community monitoring, budget savings, and increased domestic spending on services for vulnerable populations. In Guatemala, transparency and health organizations are using contract data to achieve diversification of the supply of lifesaving HIV drugs. Their advocacy for ratification of rules to enable use of generic medicines has progressed and is now before Congress.
To overcome such challenges, the recovery from Covid-19 needs to include the people that have been historically under-represented in the decisions that shape their lives. Inclusion of their perspectives will help make public services, and the recovery, more accountable and responsible to their needs.
A call to action
Since its inception, collaboration has been central to the ethos of the open government community. More recently, gender inclusion has been emphatically articulated as a key principle. To date, more than 200 commitments have been made by national and local governments in the OGP framework to engage with marginalized or under-represented communities.
These include increasing government responsiveness to indigenous groups in Costa Rica; budgeting to improve equity for minorities in Austin; strengthening the voice of informal economy participants in Papua New Guinea; and ensuring that procurement set-asides benefit women, youth and people with disabilities in Kenya.
As many historically disadvantaged communities will be hit hard by the impact of Covid-19, it is critical to maintain and increase such efforts.
Yet we’re only at the beginning of truly working with the people and organizations that experience and address persistent and intersecting exclusion due to income, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or immigration status.
Centering their demands for information and participation should be key priorities. As open government reformers and advocates, we need to redouble our efforts to learn from and support them.
Inclusion should be at the heart of commitments for an open response and recovery. Collaboration to co-develop OGP commitments between open government actors, under-represented communities and public service providers plays an important role in that. This will help build strong, open public services that are accessible and responsive to everyone, and that protect us all.
Featured Photo Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash